I started my teaching career in September 2000 at Intermediate School 33 in Brooklyn, a school that has since closed. I was hired to teach 8th grade English at the same time as Sara Milstein, both of us recent college graduates who quickly became friends.
On the first day, we introduced our rules to our students. “What happens if you break them?” asked a student. We weren’t sure.
The first several months of our teaching careers were an exercise in containing classroom chaos, and many times, we ended the day in tears.
We tried to figure out how other teachers got students to be quiet, do work, and in some cases, learn.
Ms. S, Spanish teacher, yelled every time she heard a small movement or sound. Mr. N, math, made jokes, but also conveyed a silent “Don’t try anything funny.” They didn’t. Ms. O, English, was organized, creative, and gave writing assignments around things the students cared about, like sneakers.
Mr. C, a young handsome history teacher in his 3rd year of teaching, covered every single blackboard with notes, written in neat, capital letters. The students would rush in, grab a notebook or random piece of paper, and start copying notes. Quietly. For forty-five minutes.
“How early do you have to come in to write the notes?” we asked Mr. C.
“About an hour,” he replied.
Sara and I coined the phrase “Drugged with notes” to describe the quiet calm that descended the classroom whenever students were copying. On our worst days, we envied the silence in Mr. C’s classroom.
Now as a principal, I see this phenomenon: students are assigned to answer questions, but then spend an elaborate amount of time copying the questions themselves, or copying an answer verbatim out of a textbook. For students who are struggling to understand English or who lack basic skills, this feels like success because a page is being filled. They think they’re learning, and sometimes, so do the teachers.
There’s a certain amount of chaos that happens in learning. The mind rejects what is new, what is different, or contradicts what it thinks it already knows. Mistakes need to be made, and messes need to occur for learning to happen.
For some reason, we educators have a low tolerance for mistakes and messes. We like neatness, we like hearing the right answer even if it means we’re only going to hear from the same three out of thirty students while the rest sit silently and pretend to understand. I have compassion for this love of neatness, but I’m clear my job is to help my teachers see the beauty and necessity of the mess that is learning.